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Defining learning networks: from the reluctant hug to embracing uncertainty

The NHS is fragmented, but that doesn’t mean it’s broken. It would perhaps benefit from a new type of thicker glue. Learning networks have the potential to be the stronger bond to stop the shattering, prevent new fragmentations forming, and maybe even heal damage done.

And that’s the reason why we at Kaleidoscope are really passionate about networks. As part of our work, I’ve been looking up some definitions about what a learning network is within a healthcare context. To provide context, I am naïve to the world of learning networks.This ask was – I thought – simple: to find a definition of what a learning network is and what a learning network does that is easy to understand. However, I found this was not the case.

There are quite a few conflicting descriptions of learning network definitions that make the concept a lot murkier. For example, how can one definition say a learning network is a nimble structure and yet another define it as a powerful laboratory? Learning networks were also described as ‘innovate places’, and saying ‘places’ gave me the image of networks being physically housed in buildings, and that network was another word for management, with a similar hierarchy.

Adding to this, there is a large variability of words to describe the people within a learning network, including: participants, members, community, volunteers, organisers, learners and teachers.

‘Knowledge sharing’ was also a commonly used phrase – ‘knowledge sharing’ is a strange concept, since nobody ever says that to another human being in real life. Simple words such as ‘talking’ or ‘communicating’ would suffice in most cases. Additionally, a lot of the definitions referred to a learning network as a ‘system’ but a system makes me think of something we should fight against, rather than be part of.

This was a long journey of overthinking on my behalf, but there are genuine inconsistencies in how healthcare academics, policy makers and clinicians communicate this concept.

That doesn’t mean that the entirety of learning networks is too complex for it to be integrated into healthcare, but it does mean the lack of clarity at the initial stages of definition and explanation is off putting, especially to the general public. Those with lived experience are needed in order for a learning network to be successful, so it is vital for everyone involved to really understand what’s going on. Often, many people lack time or resources to get their heads around what a learning network is and does. This means that clear definitions are needed. Taking this into account while explaining the purpose of a learning network demonstrates a thoughtfulness of teaching outside the circle of expertise you are used to.

Often many people lack time or resources to get their heads around what a learning network is or does. This means a clear definition is needed.

I sorted through the jumble sale of definitions: here are some that resonated with me.

The skeleton definition
“A learning network, in this context, is defined as a group of people who meet regularly to share their knowledge, experience and practice on how to improve outcomes for children and their families.”
Josephine Bleach, National College of Ireland

The education definition
“Established by organizations as opportunities for learning (and dialogue among students and teachers) based on the exchange of knowledge and practice in some subject areas.”
Oxford Dictionary of Public Health

The conscientiousness trait is overrated
“By their nature, networks are messy, uncertain, indistinct, and may appear quite illogical from the outside looking in…but that’s why they work. The moment a network issues its organisational chart is the moment it has, perhaps, crossed the line into becoming a regular, hierarchical organisation.”
Sarah Fraser & Sally Randall, The Health Foundation

‘Softer skills’ are of higher value
“The organisation of networks is based on respect, and the principle of exchange or reciprocity, who strive together for a common purpose.”
Malby & Anderson-Wallace, Networks in Healthcare

When a learning network is successful, its impact is difficult to measure and the evaluation has its own mesh of definitions to sift through. However, I came across this neatly packaged present of what happens when a learning network works:

“The honesty and quality of the conversations for those few hours expanded at the speed of light.”
The Story of Coproducing Leeds, in Malby & Anderson – Wallace, Networks in Healthcare

For me, this demonstrated that getting people together to talk about something they are equally passionate about really creates sparks of creativity that they enjoy. Joy is a much underrepresented part of quality within learning networks and in healthcare as a whole.

“Joy is a much underrepresented part of quality within learning networks and in healthcare as a whole.”

How would Kaleidoscope define a learning network?

Learning networks are communities of collaborators who, driven by a common purpose , share learning to improve outcomes.

We use the words communities and collaborators to be inclusive, recognising that all stakeholders should and do participate in learning networks. We emphasise the use of common purpose, because that shared drive and responsibility is what keeps a network active and buzzing.

Finally, the focus on outcomes is what distinguishes a learning network from looser forms of collaboration which, while valuable, aren’t trying to move a measurable outcome.

Being introduced to a learning network can be a bit like being asked to embrace uncertainty, but you are hugging it a bit reluctantly. We get that. We are very much committed to using learning networks within healthcare and beyond as a way to spread information and expertise more efficiently, and we do talk a lot about some of the nooks and crannies of setting up and maintaining a learning network, meaning we understand how the language used to define a complex construct can sometimes be even more complex than the construct itself.

Want to clean the polluted air from the jargon smog? Us too. Let’s talk.

…we’ll let you in on a secret about Kaleidoscope’s funding. Spoiler alert: it’s not a secret. We’re a business. We design and support collaborations, run events, and help to develop strategy and policy. Our work is shaped by our clients’ challenges. We’d love to hear about yoursfind out more.

Heather Still9 January 2019